(Un)official Japan at the 1862 Exhibition by Melissa Tyler.
This article was originally published on visit1862.com in January 2016.
The first research post by RCA History of Design students involved in the Memories of the Future exhibition (more information here).
When Japan sent its first official embassy to the west in 1862, they came face to face with an unofficial Japanese court at the International Exhibition. The items on display belonged to Sir Rutherford Alcock, Her Majesty’s Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary in Japan, an eccentric collector.
One of the primary sources for understanding the public response to the 1862 International Exhibition is the Illustrated London News, which provided detailed descriptions and illustrations of the various national courts. However, what is often lacking in our research is the reaction of those nations to the final displays that were meant to showcase the best of each nation’s arts and sciences to the world—an effective advertisement in an increasingly international world of commerce and cultures. Looking for the other side of the story brings to light interesting and provoking questions about how we see different cultures through Expositions, both in 1862 and today. However this disparity between the appearances of an exhibit; receptions by British newspapers; and reactions by each nations’ own media is particularly apparent when one approaches a small exhibition for a country so exotic and yet so closed off from the consciousness of nineteenth century visitors. In 1862 Japan opened for business, and the London Exhibition provided an excellent stage to display what Japan had to offer to visitors of all ranks and classes.
A bit of context… 1862 Japan had just sent its first Japanese embassy to Europe—the first official contact between Japan and the West. Their progress through Europe was extensively photographed and illustrations of the embassy were included in the Illustrated London News’ May 24th edition (Illustration 1). Located near the doors to the entrance for the Botanical Gardens and a little tucked away from the main nave, the Japan court displayed parasols, ceramics, grooming kits and strange grass hats and jackets—all hanging, slightly haphazardly, around a stall and crammed into display cases (Illustration 2).
However the collection was unofficial and belonged primarily to the Englishman Sir Rutherford Alcock, who, besides being Her Majesty’s Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary in Japan at the time, was an avid collector of all things Japanese. He was notorious for disappearing into odd shops in small villages where he would pick up anything that caught his fancy—from the most expensive to the most vernacular. In his 1863 book, The Capital of the Tycoon: A Narrative of a Three Years’ Residence in Japan, Alcock praised the Japanese saying ‘I have no hesitation in saying they are not only rival the best products of Europe, but can produce in each of these departments works we can not imitate, or perhaps equal’. The Illustrated London News was equally impressed and fascinated by Alcock’s collection and gave a detailed description of the items on display. However accurate the article, the accompanying illustration of the Japanese Court (Illustration 2) must be taken with a pinch of salt since, though recreated from a photograph, it is an artists impression. In many respects this is a bonus, as an impression provides an editorial view of the Japanese court. The objects are striking and recognisable from their descriptions, and the figures indicate that the display will delight men, women, and children—a universally appealing display. An all round positive British response!
Conversely the Japanese embassy had a complicated reaction. Yukichi Takashima was horrified and claimed Alcock’s goods were ‘inferior to [those of all the other countries’—for him Japan was putting its best on display. Meanwhile Yukichi Fukuzawa, one of the translators for the first Japanese embassy to Europe, reflected that ‘the point of holding expositions is to teach and learn from each other, and to take advantage of each other’s strengths. It is like trading intelligence and ideas’. Clearly the aims and hidden agendas of an International Exhibition had made their mark on the Japanese who visited. Yukichi Fukuzawa saw the benefits and, perhaps naively, the wonderful communication between nations; whilst Yukichi Takashima realised that this was a national advertisement that did not send the message of progress and modernisation that Japan wanted to project. Items such as the grass hats and jackets worn by famers against the rain were embarrassments for the Japanese; while the English saw them as ingenious (if somewhat primitive) vernacular garments. Japan would not officially present at an International Exhibition until five years later in Paris.
These receptions of and reactions to the Japan court indicates the slight of hand performed in the inclusion of an unofficial Japanese display and its official embassy. Japan was a major news story for both its exoticism and the trade relations that were now (if unequally) guaranteed by the London Protocol signed on the 6th of June that year, not quite two weeks after the Illustrated London News published their image of the official embassy. This ‘hot’ news story was revived with the publishing of a description and illustration of the Japan court on the 20th of September. What today might be seen as a public relations coup for Japan was not seen to be one by the official embassy.
Japan in 1862 is merely an early example of the conflicting perceptions from home and abroad. Today the International Exposition is subject to the attention of both traditional and social media. The coverage of the 2015 Milan Expo, where visitors were encouraged to take selfies and use hashtags, when compared to that of coverage in 1862 isn’t too different—enthusiastic enjoyment is contrasted with more critical responses. For now it is Sayōnara but please return to visit1862 for more about an international exhibition that isn’t as unfamiliar as we might assume.
Visit1862.com in an online space dedicated to collaborative research into the 1862 International Exhibition. Established and edited by Helen Cresswell and Ruth Slatter, visit1862 is one project associated with the Figure 9 Collective that engages with design history beyond the academy.